Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Is That Horse Smiling At Me?

CelebrateChamps01 Is that horse smiling at me? I think he is! What a ham.
Well, its that time of year again when I have to start making allergy medication a staple in my daily dietary regimen. February is a big month here in San Angelo and for my nasal passages what with all the animal hair and dust moving around. The month starts off with the National Reined Cow Horse Association World Championships, a week-long smorgasbord of working horse competitions, then a week of rest before we jump into the two-week fun-fest called the San Angelo Stock Show and Rodeo. We will spend all day, every day out at the fair grounds. Horses, pigs, cattle, rabbits and goats are just a few of the animals that can be seen and will be judged at this year's event.
I have never been a stock show kind of person, though I could have dabbled a little bit in it when I was in high school. I went to a small country school just north of Lubbock and I did have a few friends that participated in the agricultural arts, but I never had any interest. However, I'm not opposed to going out and spending an entire day out among the animals. First of all, the people that participate in stock shows are top notch and among the nicest you will ever meet. Secondly, some of these animals are absolutely beautiful. My personal favorite are the cattle. They all look like giant, cuddly Labradors. My least favorite have to be the pigs. I dread the week that the pig shows begin. There's something about the stench and the mess associated with these animals that put me off. And the lack of control the handlers have over the pigs in and out of the show arena gets really annoying. It never fails, every year a wild-eyed pig goes screeching through the barn with a 8-year-old yelling for a little help behind it. Nope, give me a slow lumbering heifer any day. CelebrateChamps02 CelebrateChamps03 The rodeo is a completely different animal than the stock show. It's a lot flashier, fast paced and louder than the all-day events of the stock show. There are going to be nine performances this year along with an additional performance on that last Saturday being dubbed "The Shoot-Out". Eight competitors will compete in the rough stock events, barrel racing and calf roping with the winner getting a $10,000 payout. That should be a lot of fun. I only got to shoot a few of the performances last year due to the fact that playoff high school basketball was going on at the same time and we had several good area teams last year. We'll have to wait and see if we have any teams this year that make a deep run in the post season. CelebrateChamps04

Monday, January 30, 2012

Cambodia 2011: Looking Into The Face of Fear

Cambodia45 (WRITER'S NOTE: This series of blog posts is about a trip I took to Cambodia to report on a story for the San Angelo Standard-Times that took place between Sept. 27 - Oct. 17, 2011.)

Sunday, Oct. 2, 2011: It was a tough way to start the day... for all of us. For Toro and his family, it was a reminder of the atrocities that his country went through from 1975 to 1979, and for me a chance to reflect on the good fortune of being born in the United States. We hired a tuk-tuk for the day with a full schedule of activities. The first stop: The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the Cambodian equivalent of the holocaust museum in Washington D.C. The only difference, this is the actual location of countless interrogations and murders. Like I said, a tough way to start the day.
First, a little history. What was once a high school before the hostile take-over of Phnom Penh in 1975 by Khmer Rouge forces, was turned into Security Prison 21, or S-21, a den of horrors complete with torture sessions, starvation and mass genocide. More than 10,000 people were killed or shipped off to work the fields in the countryside as slaves. Most Cambodians did not return from what are now known as the "killing fields". Often workers were told to start digging trenches and when their backs were turned they were shot, their bodies falling into the very same ditch they were working in. It was a systematic killing of a people with a long and storied past.
Our tuk-tuk driver dropped us off at the front gate of the complex. A tall stone fence topped with razor wire circled the facility. It's an eerie place right as you first walk through the front gates. The sound of the traffic of Phnom Penh, a city of almost 2 million people, seems to almost disappear, as if sucked into a vacuum, leaving you with just your thoughts and the soft echo of your shoes padding the pavement. I wanted to make sure and document Toro's reaction to the place. This was the first time he has seen the atrocities committed by the Pol Pot regime with his own eyes. Cambodia46 Cambodia47 The first building we came to consisted of large, open rooms with a single metal bed frame in the center of the room. Sitting on the bed frame were various instruments used during torture sessions held at the prison: iron rods and shackles, empty gasoline cans and chains. Hanging on the wall of each room was a single poster-sized photograph of a murdered torture victim. Whether these photos were taken by prison staff or by the liberators in 1979, I'm unsure, but I guess it doesn't matter. The torture sessions were a grotesque affair. Victims were subjected to beatings, asphyxiation, dismemberment, burning, anything to get them to say what their captors wanted them to say. Many, if not most, of the prisoners were highly educated citizens of Cambodia. Pol Pot and his gang of thugs rounded up doctors, lawyers, school teachers, artists, anyone with an education and systematically murdered everyone. If you were not being held in a security prison you worked in the fields. Cambodia48 Cambodia49 The next building across the courtyard, past the gallows and the drowning cisterns, was probably one of the most difficult areas to get through. Prison officials kept incredibly detailed notes on everyone imprisoned at S-21 which included names, dates, places of origin and of course photographs of each man, woman and child. Upon entering this building we were immediately met by a thousand pairs of eyes staring back at us. Lining the walls and pinned to cork boards were thousands of prison mugshots taken by security personnel of the people who were held captive in the complex. It was a haunting experience walking along the rows of photographs knowing that almost all of these people were murdered.  After spending most of the morning walking around the complex and speaking with one of the two remaining survivors of S-21, we decided to break for lunch. Cambodia50 Cambodia51 Our tuk-tuk driver took us to Wat Phnom, a temple constructed on a hill in the middle of the city and is the center of activity during the celebration of the Khmer New Year. There, we ate sandwiches from a nearby vendor and stocked up on water. I was sweating like a beast in the humid climate. We took a quick tour of the temple and had our fortunes read by a man inside. I was told that my fortune was similar to Moses' from the Bible. Odd, considering we were in a Buddhist temple. But, I was told that I would go through great struggles, but in the end have all the power. If I'm remembering correctly, Moses never made it to the land promised by God, he died in the wilderness somewhere. Perhaps I'm losing something in the translation. Cambodia53 Cambodia52 It seems like we've been on the go ever since we landed at the airport in Siem Reap with little time set aside for rest. We all looked at each other and decided that it would be best to head back to the house for a nap before dinner. I was still trying to turn my brain off from everything I had seen and done earlier in the day as I put my head down on the pillow, but I just couldn't get the image of all those eyes staring at me from behind the glass at the genocide museum. I laid there for hours listening to the sound of the city outside the open windows of the room. An afternoon storm started to brew with the wind increasing from a casual breeze to a sustained gust. The smell of the city below was replaced with the scent of raindrops and the jasmine garland hanging on the dresser that Sokny gave me the day before. Eventually the smell of steamed rice and fried shrimp from the kitchen made its way to the room. I got up without having slept at all. My back was sore from sleeping on hard surfaces and my feet hurt from walking all day, but its all been worth it. And its only the fourth day. Cambodia55 Cambodia54

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Cambodia 2011: The Wheels On The Bus Go...

Cambodia43 Cambodia42 (WRITER'S NOTE: This series of blog posts is about a trip I took to Cambodia to report on a story for the San Angelo Standard-Times that took place between Sept. 27 - Oct. 17, 2011.)

Saturday, Oct, 1, 2011: I woke up this morning to a crowing rooster calling the sunrise. The night before I was offered a simple blanket and a spot on the floor to sleep, which as it turns out, is where everyone else sleeps... together. No plush mattress or fluffy pillow, just a thin blanket and a spot on the wood-planked floor. In just the three days that I have been here I've noticed that Cambodian people are not ones to seek out comfort. Things are kept simple. Almost all of the homes in the countryside are without furniture. Everyday activities are done while sitting on the floor.
With that being said, I woke up with some soreness in my shoulders and lower back, but rested, which is more than I can say for Toro. Apparently, that rooster that woke me up at 7:00 am woke him up at 3:00 am and he never went back to sleep. He may have been still feeling a little jet-lagged. As I strolled out of the room I was in I was met by a few Ooohhhhs and Awwwwws by the people sitting in the main room. I'm somewhat of a celebrity in Sisophon because when I walked down stairs with Lor, Low, and La (the elders of the house) there were four neighbors waiting to see the "big white man" for their own eyes. One of the neighbors said she tried to get a look at me last night when we arrived, but it was too dark and decided to come over in the morning. Everyone was really intrigued by the hair on my arms. There's nothing like having little Cambodian grandmothers run their tiny, weathered hands up and down your arms at 8:00 in the morning because they think you are a good omen for the village. Toro later told me that the villagers thought that my presence would bring them luck. Cambodia44 Cambodia41 After I managed to pry myself away from the Cambodian fan club, Toro, Vireak and I went to have breakfast at a local restaurant. This is when I learned that we would not be taking the car to Phnom Penh, but the bus. Yep, right in the middle of spoonfulls of fish-head soup I learned we would be riding the Greyhound, Cambodian style. Now folks, if you've never been on a six to eight-hour bus ride over one of the most poorly maintained highways in the world... do it! It's the best way to see the countryside. But travelers be warned, it's not for everyone. In fact, it's not an experience that most Americans would enjoy. Cambodia40 Cambodia39 My fat, American backside barely fit in the seat and the road conditions are bad enough to jar the fillings right out of your teeth. But as we made our way down from Sisophon to Phnom Penh, you are rewarded wiith a variety of countryside scenes. From the water buffalo grazing in the fields, roadside vendors hawking their wares to monks in their orange robes walking down the road, you see it all. Toro was glued to the window, camera in hand. "I'm so glad we did this," Toro said. "It was a perfect experience." I will say the one thing that I could have done without was the Cambodian comedy routine playing on the TV screen. Cambodia38 Cambodia37 Phnom Penh is a mess and the traffic is horrible, at lest to a foreigner. When we stepped off the bus we were met by Toro's sister, Sokny, who went on to Phnom Penh the day we got into Cambodia instead of staying with us in Siem Reap. She put a garland of fresh jasmine around my neck and we all piled into what is known as a tuk-tuk, basically a motorcycle pulling a little cart behind it. We made our way through town dodging more motorcycles than I have ever seen to a house owned by Toro's brother who lives in California. I got to meet more family members as we all sat down for a meal. The bus ride was totally worth it. Cambodia36 Cambodia35

Friday, January 20, 2012

Cambodia 2011: Abbreviated Temple Tour

Cambodia15 Cambodia18 Cambodia16 (WRITER'S NOTE: This series of blog posts is about a trip I took to Cambodia to report on a story for the San Angelo Standard-Times that took place between Sept. 27 - Oct. 17, 2011.)

 Friday, Sept. 30, 2011: Okay, so everyone knows that the worst thing about traveling are the tourists, right? You know, that giant roving hoard of matching t-shirts, fanny-pack carrying, souvenir-seeking loudmouths that gets in the way of you actually having a moving experience. Having to dodge sticky-faced children running a muck as oblivious parents go in search of that perfect shot glass to add to an already expansive collection can really distract from the beauty or historical significance of a place. It was a struggle today to overcome the oppressive heat and the throng of people, but the majesty of Cambodia's ancient temples trumps anything Mother Nature or Vietnamese tour groups could muster.
At 6:00 a.m. Toro, myself and our two traveling companions headed out to take a tour of some of Cambodia's Angkor-region temples. If you are a citizen of Cambodia of Khmer descent, you can get into these national treasures without paying a fee. I, on the other hand, had to buy a day pass, which I was happy to do since the fees go to reconstruction of the temples that were damaged due to years of war and neglect. The really great thing is that its not just a day pass to one temple, but all the temples near Siem Reap. After getting my pass, we headed over to the main attraction to almost every tourist in the county: Angkor Wat, the mother of ancient temples. This place has always held a kind of mystical allure in my heart, though I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would ever get to see it in person. I mean, let's be honest, who ever thinks of Cambodia as a tourist destination? Cambodia17 Cambodia14 Cambodia13 Cambodia22 Just as I suspected, as we pulled up to the temple gates, the tourists were out in force. I can't blame them for getting here early due to the fact that it was going to be especially hot and muggy today. We parked the car, shuffled our way through street vendors trying to sell hats and packs of postcards and made our way across a long, stone bridge over the moat that surrounds the temple complex. As we are crossing over the bridge, I am trying to run several things through my mind along the lines of  which lenses I should have on my cameras, should I be shooting video or stills, trying to determine if this moment is even important enough to document and trying to soak up as much as I can for my own experience of being in a new place. The incredible size of this place is enough to want to see it in person, but the true glory of Angkor Wat is all in the details. Sure, there are the massive stone structures and the incredible bas-relief carvings on the inner temple walls, but if you really look close at even the most insignificant pillar or out of view wall, you will find some of the most ornate stone carving you have ever seen. This place is beautiful.
As we make our way through the compound to the inner temple, the smell of wet grass and burning incense wafts through the air. Placed sporadically through the temple there are large statues of the Buddha where people can stop and pray. We made it into the inner temple complex where a handrail had been constructed for those that wished to brave the steep stairs to the upper shrine. What is it with the ancient civilizations and near perpendicular staircases? Have you ever been to Chitzen Iza, that Mayan complex in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula? The staircase of the central temple... steep as all get out! Cambodia20 Cambodia21 Cambodia19 Cambodia23 Before making the climb to the top, Toro removed his shoes out of respect. Almost all Cambodians will remove their shoes before entering any temple. As we made our way up, the din of the amassing crowd below seemed to slowly fade away to the sound of a cool breeze blowing through the hallways of the upper shrine. The view from the top is amazing. The center shrine is four-sided with images of the Buddha. Toro paused for a moment to say a prayer. I'm not a Buddhist, but I paused for a moment out of respect for the people who believe this to be a holy place. There is a certain feeling of reverence you get when visiting the holy places of this earth, even if you don't subscribe to the specific belief of that area. We lingered there at the upper shrine for a time before climbing back down among the tourist groups with their specially marked "follow me" flags and bull-horns. Bull horns! Really?
Reluctantly, we left Angkor Wat to head back to the hotel for some rest and lunch. We were supposed to begin packing up to head into Sisophon about an hour away and then on to Phnom Penh. But that plan had changed and we would not be going that afternoon as expected. Phnom Penh is a six-hour drive and the passport office Toro needed to get to was going to be closed before we got there. And, with it being Friday, the office was not going to open again until Monday. So instead of heading to Sisophon where Toro's mom's house was, we decided to head back out and see a few more temples until it was time to leave.
We headed back out and entered the ancient temple city of Angkor Thom, built by one of Cambodia's great kings, Jayavarman VII. The first temple we came up on was Bayon which features 216 faces carved out of stone. Other than Angkor Wat, this was probably my favorite of all the temples we walked through. Wonderful stone carvings up and down stairs and the carved faces with their wry smiles looking out over the temple complex. We also stopped for a moment at Baphuon to see a few more stone carvings and toured the grounds of Ta Prohm, a temple complex that is being torn apart slowly by the encroaching jungle. Cambodia25 Cambodia24 Cambodia26 Cambodia27 Cambodia28 Cambodia29 Cambodia30 After five more hours of Cambodian history and six more pounds lost in sweat, we headed back to the hotel to pack up and head to Sisophon where we would stay the night at Toro's mom's house. I was so tired from the day's activities I almost immediately fell asleep in the back seat of the car. Two hours later under the cover of darkness, we pulled into Sisophon and the driveway of the house. The reception Toro received was warm and heartfelt. A small Cambodian woman, probably no more than five-feet tall, came running out of the house, grabbed Toro by the hand and pulled him inside to meet the rest of the family. The woman was 82-year-old family friend Me La, who lost her husband during the war. I tried chasing them into the house, but for being 82-years-old, she was pretty spry. I found them sitting on the floor now joined by his aunt, Me Lo, examining his hands and curly hair. a few tears even flowed. This was the first time Toro had seen these people since immigrating to the US in 1992. It was a nice moment as family and friends reunited.
Toro's mother, Lor, had a meal ready for us when we arrived of rice, fish, soup and vegetables. They invited me in without hesitation and offered me a spot on the floor with the rest of the family to eat. Sitting on the floor was something I was not expecting. In most Cambodian homes there is no furniture. Everything is done on the floor from preparing food, to eating meals, socializing with family and guests to sleeping. If you do have furniture, its a luxury. We all talked late into the night. The group asked about my family, my "village" and my wife. After that we claimed a spot on the floor to go to bed. What a great ending to a long day. Cambodia34 Cambodia33 Cambodia32 Cambodia31

Friday, January 13, 2012

Cambodia 2011: I Wish Could Sleep On Airplanes

Cambodia01 Cambodia02 Cambodia03 (WRITER'S NOTE: This series of blog posts is about a trip I took to Cambodia to report on a story for the San Angelo Standard-Times that took place between Sept. 27 - Oct. 17, 2011.)

Today marks the first day of travel for Toro Vaun, his sister Sokny, mother Lor and myself bound for Cambodia. The trip is on! I'm so excited I can hardly contain myself. We arrived at the airport early so that we could get all the details ironed out with checked bags and connection tickets and to get a few hours rest at the gate before we take off. I know that sounds a little strange, but if you are like me, you don't sleep on airplanes. I don't know why, but I never could, and with a 28-hour flight ahead I wanted to get as much shut-eye as I could. I might be able to get some sleep in our connecting airports in Moscow and Singapore, but I doubt it. These next few days are going to be a sleep-deprived blur.

Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2011, 5:15 pm: We've made it to our seats, beating everyone on the plane by about 15 minutes thanks to Lor, who requested a wheelchair. That means we get to board first avoiding the wait at the top of the tunnel. Our section is all the way in the back of the plane (we would be the "tail-ies" in the show Lost) just rows back from the bathroom and a kitchen. Fine by me.
As the rest of the passengers begin to board the plane, I'm shocked at just how few people there are in our section. Everyone could have a row of seats to themselves. Maybe, just maybe, I'll be able to stretch out and get some sleep.

Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2011, 6:15 pm: We've just past 149 miles and everyone is starting to get settled for the long haul to Moscow, our first stop of the trip. This trip will mark the second time I've traveled to Asia and I owe it to my bosses at the paper and, of course, to Toro and his family. How do you repay someone for letting you tag along on a personal journey like this? I guess doing the best I can in words and images is a start. Making sure I take notice of all the small details and being as descriptive as possible will make a difference.
Toro and I have been friends now for several years, but I'm still having a hard time reading what his true feelings are about heading home to Cambodia for the first time in almost two decades. He certainly doesn't dress like a Cambodian. At the moment he's wearing a dark blue blazer with a white, long-sleeve, pearl-snap shirt, blue jeans with a few stains and of course his beloved cowboy boots with the green uppers and light brown lowers. "I am an American and I want to represent the area I am now living in," Toro said. He in fact is not an American citizen, but in his heart he is. "I speak American English, dress as an American, this is who I am." Toro was born, however, in the small village of Banteay Toup situated in the northwest region of Cambodia. He was born the 10th of 11 children to a very petite women, Lor, who can't be more than five-feet-tall. There is a level of respect he shows his mom that he reserves just for her.

Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2011, 8:05 pm: There is a thin layer of low-level clouds obscuring my view of the ground. The sun, just about to set, is casting a reddish-orange hue across the clouds. Your perspective of the world changes at 30,000 feet and you realize just how small we humans really are. But that doesn't mean we have to be complacent with where we live in the world, because it is ours to explore. As human beings we have it in our genetic configuration to go, see, do. What if in 1492, Columbus decided not to sail the ocean blue? Thank goodness he did, and we're the better for it. Now, this particular trip is not equal to sailing west across the Atlantic for the first time, but for Toro, and perhaps myself, it is similar to journeying into uncharted waters. Toro has limited memory of his birth village and after immigrating to the U.S. in 1992, he has never been back. He's going home, home to a past of shrouded early childhood memories. As for me, now a 30-something white male comfortably situated in lower-middle class America, going anywhere in the world is a dream come true. Shaking off the West Texas dust for the humid and rainy weather of Cambodia will be a welcomed change. Cambodia06 Cambodia04 Cambodia05 Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2011, 9:25 pm: I've just seen the Aurora Borealis for the first time! Amazing! We're currently over Canada somewhere, according to the flight monitor in the seatback in front of me. We've also traveled 2510 miles.

Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011, 12:45 am: So I spent the last few hours surfing the movie options on the little TV screen in front of me. The early morning hours have just begun back home in Texas, but at the moment I'm watching the sunrise over Iceland. I was able to watch the Aurora Borealis start to fade in the distance, it's green tentacles giving way to the deep blues of a cloudless sky. The farther east we head, the lighter the shade of blue the sky becomes. The sun rises to start the new day and with it dawns a new chapter in Toro's life as he tries to reclaim his past.  It's a past of starvation and genocide brought on by the Khmer Rouge who took over the country in 1975, just two years before Toro was born. From the time he was four-years-old, Toro and his family had to move from refugee camp to the next to avoid the fighting between KR loyalists, the invading Vietnamese and Cambodian freedom fighters. On this trip, Toro hopes to retrace the route he and his family took in the middle of the night to get into Thailand where he lived in the Site 2 camp until 1992.
But that description is for later in the trip. Right now, breakfast is about to be served by the flight crew. I wish I could sleep on airplanes. This flight to Moscow is supposed to take about 10 1/2 hours and I've been up since 8:00 am Tuesday. Toro has also managed not to fall asleep as he has been to preoccupied with is TV screen. And , thanks to the ever present flight crew, exclaimed, "I feel like I've been eating non-stop!"

Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011, 2:40 am: Typical. Just as my body is about to give up and fall asleep, all the cabin lights come on and the flight crew begins to hand out hot towels. We've now traveled 5272 miles and we are somewhere over Finland. Another meal (can you believe it) is being prepared in the airplane galley in front of us and the lady sitting in the row ahead has just received her vegetarian meal. It smells oddly of flash-frozen green beans. You know, the ones that come out of the freezer at your grandmother's house that have that ultra florescent green color? I decided on the braised ee-fu noodles with pork instead of going with the cheese omelet with chicken sausage.  Maybe its just me, but there is something about the term "chicken sausage" that is particularly off-putting. Besides, its not like its going to be a relaxing meal as we will be landing in Moscow in about an hour.

Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011, 3:30 am (TX time), 1:30 pm (Moscow time): We've landed in Moscow and its not at all what I expected. On the final approach I expected to see a huge city, but instead saw dense forest. Maybe I was just sitting on the wrong side of the plane. When we rolled up to the terminal I was expecting it to be a little more modernized, but the first thing I saw was a bunch of planes crowded on the tarmac waiting for gates to open up. And the exposed re-bar and cinder-block design of the terminal left something to be desired. After getting to the gate and deplaning we were told that we would have to once again go through security. That's odd. Security? Again?
If you've never been through an airport outside of the United States, you're in for a treat. Especially one that is not up on all the more modern amenities that we're used to. These are some of the more interesting airports to go through. Ones where you get a tour of the world's languages just by walking by three gates or a single smoking lounge. This airport is just like that and some of the people you meet are just a colorful as the language they speak.
After winding my way through the sea of people, Toro and I got back to our gate, waited around for about 40 minutes, boarded the very same plane we flew in on and and sat in the very same seats. And that statement I made about sitting on the wrong side of the plane was correct because when we took off I got a clear view of the real Moscow. Its not the rural farm-ville it looked like when we flew in, but rather an a massive city made up of dormitory-style block housing highrises. I've now been awake for 24 hours.

Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011, 2:00 pm (TX time), 11:00 pm (Moscow time): We're somewhere over the Andaman Sea between the Andaman Islands and Myanmar (Burma). I was hoping to get a glimpse of the Himalayan Mountains as we flew over northern India, but the sun had already set. Sleep still eludes me. I've been in that half sleep-half awake state for the past few hours. Just as my brain decides that it can't stay conscious any longer, my head falls off the head rest or the pitch in the engines change. The flight crew is bringing yet another meal through the cabin and I guess I should eat. I haven't had anything since the breakfast before we landed in Moscow. I didn't eat the first meal served after takeoff because I was trying to force my body to sleep.
In a few hours we'll be landing in Singapore and from what Toro's sister has told me, you have to have a roll of $100 bills in your pocket to do anything. Apparently, its pretty extravagant. Hopefully I'll have enough money to get some simple food while on the ground. All this airplane food is starting to get a little old. I've been told that Toro's brother is bringing in some fresh fish for dinner the night we get into Cambodia. I'm excited about trying out the local cuisine when we get there. Lots of herbs and spices, rice and noodle soups and fresh fish and chicken are supposed to be what the locals eat. Sounds good to me. Cambodia07 Cambodia09 Cambodia10 Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011: Its almost 10:00 am and Toro, his mother Lor, sister Sokny and myself are flying over the flood-covered countryside of Cambodia. This is a new adventure for me, but for Toro it's a return home. This is the first time he has seen his homeland in 19 years. The recent floods are not going to stop Toro from experiencing all he has set his mind to for this trip. On this two-hour plane ride from Singapore I had to sit in an aisle seat. Fortunately, Toro had a window seat and as we flew over Cambodia, his face was glued to the plexiglass. His mom was sitting next to him and he would turn around every so often and relay what he was seeing. As we touched down at the Siem Reap Airport a smile stretched across his face from ear to ear. The plane comes to a stop at the gate, the cabin door swings open and the adventure begins.
Adjusting to the humidity of the country was an unexpected challenge right off the plane, but getting my bags and travel visa was a breeze. As I exited the airport, I was immediately met by a group of young men. My first thought was that this was some kind of tourist trap where they would sell me my first Cambodian t-shirt or give me a discount ride into town. But that's not who they were. They were family members who knew I was coming to stay with them for a few weeks and they were told to look out for. They greeted me in the traditional Cambodian way, with a deep bow and their hands clasped together as if in prayer. They placed a garland of fresh jasmine around my neck and led me to meet the rest of the family. Just that quick and quiet moment was strangely moving, a moment meant only for me.
I met Toro's brother Vireak and a few more members of the family, took a few photos for the story about Toro's homecoming and then bid farewell to Lor. She had decided she was just going to drive home to Sisophon instead of stay with us in Siem Reap. One of Toro's nephews and a friend stayed behind with Toro and I to go and find a hotel for the night. I have to admit, here I was in a new and exotic location of the world I have never seen and the only thing I could think of was finding a bed and falling asleep. I've been awake for almost 48 hours and it didn't matter what new experiences were whizzing by the car window, just get me to a bed. We rolled up on a hotel that charged $15 a night with A/C, threw our bags on the floor and timbered into bed. It was 11:00 in the morning. I didn't wake up until 6:00 that evening.
After the nap, we all headed out to grab some food. I was still a little groggy from lack of sleep, but we found this place that served Khmer BBQ. It was delicious. Basically there is a burner in the middle of the table and you cook different kinds of meats on it. After dinner we went through a night market for tourists, made a quick run through a grocery store for snacks and headed back to the hotel where we sat and talked into the night. It was a good introduction to the country and the people that call this place home. I'm most definitely looking forward to the days ahead. Cambodia12 Cambodia11